"poet, historian, author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director"

     Maya Angelou, birth name Marguerite Johnson, was born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928.  She was born the second child of Bailey Johnson, Sr. and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, with an older brother, Bailey, Jr.  Maya lived a difficult and complicated life.  In 1931, Maya and her brother moved to live with their grandmother, Annie Johnson Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.  When Maya was eight, her father took her brother and her from Stamps to visit their mother back in St. Louis.  “It was there, in 1936, in a poorly supervised household, that Maya was seduced and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman” (Lupton 5).  Freeman was later beaten to death, supposedly by Maya’s three uncles.  Because of this incident, Maya withdrew into silence, and Bailey, Jr. and she returned to Stamps, where she remained mute for five years.
        In 1940, Angelou graduated with honors from eighth grade at Lafayette Country Training School. The next year, her brother and she moved to San Francisco to live with their mother, Vivian.  She attended the California Labor School at night, and “gave an early sign of enormous potential to succeed by becoming the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco” (Lupton 5).  In that same year of 1944, she graduated from Mission High School, and experienced a life altering event.  At the age of sixteen, Angelou became pregnant, and gave birth to her first son, Clyde (Guy) Johnson.
        For the next several years, Angelou held a variety of unusual jobs, including Creole cook, nightclub waitress, prostitute, and madam.  She had to go through each of these jobs in order to provide for her son, while living in a harsh economic situation.  She was a young mother, trying to survive with a lack of wisdom, job training, or any advanced schooling.  “Nevertheless, she was able to survive through trial and error, while at the same time, defining herself in terms of being a black woman” (Lupton 6).  In 1949, while in her early twenties, Angelou married her first husband, Tosh Angelos, who was a white man.  This marriage only lasted for three years, and they divorced in 1952.
         Due to her nightclub performances, Angelou was proven to have a natural talent, and won a scholarship to study dance with Pearl Primus, a Trinidadian choreographer.  She also danced with the acclaimed African American performer and choreographer, Alvin Ailey.  Angelou performed in famous productions, such as Porgy and Bess and Calypso Heatwave.  Because she was on tour all the time, her son Clyde lived with her mother Vivian.  Angelou began to feel guilty, due to the fact that her brother and she lived with their grandmother instead of their mother.  She promised herself to give up her major tours and focus on mothering her adolescent son.  In her new New York environment, she found completion as an actress, writer, and political organizer.
         Angelou’s career reached a climax in 1960, when she was offered the role of the White Queen in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, a satirical play about the reversal of racial power.  She was also politically active during this time period.  After being moved by a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., Godfrey Cambridge and she organized a fundraiser called “Cabaret for Freedom.”  Because she was such a strong supporter of Dr. King, she was appointed the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1959 to 1960.
         In 1961, Angelou met South African freedom fighter, Vusumzi Make.  She fell in love with his intelligence and charisma, and went with him to London to get married, even though it was never made legal.  Going against Make’s wishes, Angelou took a job as associate editor of the Arab Observer, from 1961-1962.  Due to many problems, Make and Angelou separated, and Clyde and she planned on moving to Liberia.  Due to a traumatic car accident, Angelou and Clyde had to settle in Ghana.   In Ghana, Angelou worked as the assistant administrator of the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana.  She also worked for the Ghanian Broadcast Corporation and the Ghanian Times newspaper.
She also met some of the most influential people of her life, W.E.B. Du Bois, Julian Mayfield, and Malcolm X.  As part of her political career, in 1965, she organized a demonstration in support of King’s March on Washington, and arranged Malcolm X’s itinerary for his visit to Ghana that same year.
         Also in 1965, Angelou and her son came back to the United States.  She was approached with two memorable events.  Malcolm X called her telling her that he was just rescued from being shot at.  He then asked her if she would stay over with him, but she replied by saying she was desperate to get home.  Three days later, she found out that Malcolm X had been assassinated (February 21, 1965). Three years later in 1968,  Angelou ran into Martin Luther King, Jr. at a tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois.  He asked for her help in asking the nation’s black preachers to support his march by donating one day’s collection a year.  She agreed to help him, starting the day after her birthday.  On her birthday, she received a phone call stating that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated (April 4, 1968).
During these rough times, Angelou’s writing career took off with full force.  Angelou’s first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969.  This was an autobiographical account of the first sixteen years of her life.  This book was nominated for a National Book Award, and was later made for television.  In 1971, Angelou was married to Paul Du Feu.  Two more autobiographical books were published, Gather Together in My Name in 1974, and Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin Merry Like Christmas in 1976.  She also wrote three volumes of poetry, drama and television plays, and two screenplays.
        In the decade of the 1980s, Angelou gained even more reputation with two more autobiographies, The Heart of a Woman (1981, the year she also divorced Du Feu), and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), along with several more volumes of poetry.   Also in 1981, Angelou received the lifetime appointment as Reynold’s Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.  “Although she has won greater acclaim for her memoiristic works than for her poetry and drama, the peak of her fame may have come in 1993, when she composed the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration” (Bloom 2) .  In 1994, Maya Angelou published The Complete Collected Poems of MayaAngelou.  This book starts from her earliest collections of poetry to her latest.
         Maya Angelou is a very talented individual, being able to speak the languages of French, Spanish, Italian, and West African Fanti.  She is also very educated, receiving honorary degrees from Smith College, Mills College, and Lawrence University. Angelou has had the privilege of living through many important decades for the struggles of African Americans, such as the Civil Rights Movement, and the tragic, unfortunate deaths of two great leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.  Maya Angelou has been and still is a great role model for African Americans of all ages.  Her life has showed that through the troubles and the hard times, an individual can still come out victorious.  She is given proof that with determination and perseverance, an African American woman can achieve great accomplishments.

Three Poems by Maya Angelou (Click to read):

 Still I Rise

 Phenomenal Woman


Links to Impressive Websites about Maya Angelou:

Works Cited:

Bloom, Harold.  Women Memoirists:  Volume One.  Philadelphia:  Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.

Lupton, Mary Jane.  Maya Angelou, A Critical Companion.  Connecticut:  Greenwood Press, 1998.

Inaugural Poem: